The Seven Deadly Grammar / Punctuation Sins

When I taught a composition class this summer, I was reminded of all of the common mistakes I see in spelling (written about here), grammar, and punctuation.  I try to teach my students about commas, and I make constant marks on their papers for the same grammar issues, but it never sinks in.  That’s okay.  I can vent about it on my blog.  Here are the common grammar and punctuation problems.


1. Comma Splices

This is an issue I see over and over in my students’ papers.  And, I explain it over and over.  Basically, a comma splice occurs when you take two independent clauses and stick them together without a conjunction.  In plain English?  If you have two complete sentences, do not connect them with a comma.  Use a comma in conjunction with a FANBOY: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, or So.

2. The Oxford Comma

This is the last comma in a series that comes just before “and.”  If you are in newspaper writing, this rule doesn’t apply to you.  However, if you are in my class, it does.  The best example of the Oxford comma’s worth is this:  Here come the strippers, JFK and Stalin.  Okay, so are you saying that JFK and Stalin are strippers?  No.  Better:  Here come the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.  Now we have all three of them separately.

There’s a great cartoon of this, complete with drawings of JFK and Stalin dressed as strippers, but I’m not going to put it on here because of copyright issues.  You can see it here.

3. Who and Whom

Here’s the easiest way to remember this: only use “whom” when it comes before a pronoun.  Pronouns are: you, I, they, he, she, it, we, etc.  Example: To Whom It May Concern.

4. Dangling Modifiers

This involves an introductory clause.  Here’s an example of a dangling modifier.  “Despite her obvious lack of style, the dog fitted nicely into Sophie’s purse.”  The introductory statement is “despite her obvious lack of style.”  However, what follows that statement is “the dog.”  So, does the dog lack style or does Sophie, the person carrying the dog, lack style?  This is a dangling modifier because I meant to say that the person carrying the dog lacked style, but instead, by putting “the dog” directly after the introductory clause, I modified “the dog” as the one lacking style.  Make sense?

5. Parallel Verbs

When using several verbs in the same sentence, one must make sure they all appear in the same tense.  Here’s an example of what not to do:  “I like to go skiing, sky dive, and jumped on the trampoline.”  There are three different verb forms here.  They are not parallel.  Instead, say this: “I like to ski, sky dive, and jump on the trampoline.”  Or you could use the gerunds: “I like skiing, skydiving, and jumping on the trampoline.”  That’s how to make your verbs parallel, but only say the above sentence, of course, if you like to do all of those things.  Personally, I only like doing one of those things, I’ve never done the other, and, well, I used to like the last one until I got old and my body started hurting all of the time.

6.  Past Tense = –ed.

I often get student papers that say something like, “As you have probably notice, I need to improve my handwriting.”  I did notice, but I also noticeD that you forgot to put a “D” at the end of “notice.”  It is past tense, therefore, it needs a D!

7.  Fragments

A sentence is not complete unless it has a subject and a verb.  This is something my third grader is working on identifying, so college freshman should have this down by now.  Yet, occasionally, I see a lone fragment just hanging out by itself.  I pound this truth of writing into my students, and then I inform them that if they become famous writers, they can ignore this rule.  People like John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Joyce Carol Oates have ignored it.  Hey, even I ignore it sometimes on my blog, and probably in this post.  Sometimes it’s fun to use fragments.  They add style.  And emphasis.  And, hey…I think I just did it again.  Right?  Right.

So, do you have any grammar or punctuation pet peeves?  Feel free to share them!

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